She Done Him Wrong (1933)

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Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.

For this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick I used the opportunity to finally see a movie I probably should have watched by now, Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933). West plays a nightclub headliner who we learn has not just done HIM wrong, but a lot of them (and vice versa). She’s loved and left several men in her wake, most of whom can be found in prison, and she attracts new males like a magnet. The suitors and interested parties range from a saloon owner (Noah Beery) to a con man with a grudge (Owen Moore), to a missionary who judges her habit of obscuring her soul with diamonds (Cary Grant), to a potential suitor whose attention to West infuriates his lady friend and keeper (Gilbert Roland). Any woman who can enchant and infuriate such a diverse bunch of men has to be something special, and West is certainly that; she remains unflappable and slick through all their advances and ensuing crises, even handling an attempt on her life with characteristic wry humour and sarcasm.

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This adaptation of West’s Broadway hit “Diamond Lil,” was full of raunchy, risque lines and situations that had to be toned down, even for the looser standards of the Pre-Code era. It’s tame compared to modern indecency, but still, the screenplay is racy enough and benefits from perfect delivery by West, mistress of juicy repartee, impeccable timing and innuendo. For the first ten minutes West is unseen but generously built up, hailed as the premier attraction not just at Beery’s club but for most of the men in town (one of the “finest women to ever walk the streets”) before she makes her entrance. By that time we’ve met Beery, and figured out his racket is not just entertainment but prostitution and counterfeit money. He keeps West close and unsuspecting by pouring diamonds over her. We’ve also heard about Grant, the persistent do-gooder from the local Mission who keeps a judging eye on the bar’s goings-on, and we’ve learned about David Landau, the aspiring politician who has a past with West and got her ex locked up in prison. All of which serves as perfect windup for the pitch when she finally slinks down the stairs to meet us all. Roland says,“I have heard so much about you,” and West purrs, “Yeah, but you can’t prove it.”

She Done Him Wrong

Mae West was one of the most quotable stars of any era; goodness knows I’ve often repeated her words and admired her achievements despite having seen only a couple of her movies. Her persona and talent were too huge to be contained by a theater audience or a 60 minute film (it became too huge to even be maintained by herself, and she tended to play a caricature in later years). She Done Him Wrong, a massive box office smash, was the first exposure wider audiences had to the full act of the bawdy, Rubenesque, iconoclastic and just plain fun dame (she made her debut in the previous year’s Night After Night, but this time the spotlight was on her character). It was also the first exposure Paramount had to gross earnings in a long time; the gamble they took on bringing West’s scandalous act to the screen paid with box office bounty that saved the studio from bankruptcy. 

In this early film performance it’s easy to see everything that made her so appealing and fresh. Lines like “come up again, any time… there was a time I didn’t know where my next husband was coming from…it was a toss up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir. The choir lost.” West gets to perform a few tunes, shortened but still long enough to show you what made her such an attraction: “A Guy What Takes His Time,” “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” and “Frankie and Johnny.” One line I love here, not delivered by West: “You know, ever since I sang that song it’s been haunting me. /It SHOULD haunt you, you murdered it.”

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Early in the story Rochelle Hudson wanders into the saloon, with clothing torn and face drawn with utter despair, and she’s stopped as she tries to commit suicide. That episode leads us into West’s parlour where she administers to the girl some signature wisdom on the subject of romance and heartbreak. West correctly deduces that Hudson’s been wronged by a man and teaches her how to bounce back; “who would ever want me” says Hudson, to which West replies, “listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them.” Unbeknownst to West, Hudson gets scooped into the slave ring, but West will sort that out before the end credits, just as she’ll squirm out of an arrest, happen into a solid romantic future, deal with her vengeful ex and discover the identity of the investigator working undercover to crack the saloon’s criminal activities wide open. No word on whether she ever gets her assistant Louise Beavers to move faster when she beckons.

It is West’s showcase but thanks to director Lowell Sherman, every one of the fun group of actors gets their moment, it all moves quickly, and the script gives us enough plot on which to hang West’s comebacks, enough even to make us stop to consider the consequences of her ways. But you don’t watch this type of film for the story. You see it to experience the emergence of a pop culture icon, captured in an era that had the freedom to show a new type of female star flipping the gender roles and pushing the boundaries (it’s ok to see it just for young Cary too).

Catch She Done Him Wrong on TCM April 20, and go see what Pre-Code Karen has picked out for you to watch this month.

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17 thoughts on “She Done Him Wrong (1933)”

      1. I binged that box because I wanted to see it before I gave it to someone for research. It was great. The cheap “legacy” and “glamour” collections are good for catching up. Planning on seeing some more Dietrich soon now that I got “Blonde Venus.”

        1. Binge watching is the best, when you can gather up the movies in one place. Will check those and enjoy more Dietrich, I’ve seen most of hers!

  1. Great review as always. I love Mae, she was a force of nature,wasn’t she.
    You must see “I’m No Angel” too, again with Cary Grant.
    You didn’t say much about the emerging star,Cary. Not a great part but it was obvious his career path was only upwards.

    1. Love Mae and will have to catch up on many more of her movies. Yes that’s true, Cary deserves a little more attention; before this he was also in a similarly notable role with Marlene in Blonde Venus, and (I think) he disputed that he was “discovered” in the West movie. He’s so cute, plays a nice part and is probably the reason some people even come to this movie. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading!

  2. Good thing Mae was around at this time for movies – how dull they would have been without her! However, as wonderful as she was… Cary Grant AND Gilbert Roland in the same film? Is it hot in here?

    1. And they both look so handsome here, lucky Mae. She was a fresh change from the prevailing look of the day and also fit the Pre-Code era so well. Thanks!

  3. I haven’t seen many Mae West films but I’d already made up my mind to like her – such charisma and personality. But this film has been on my to-watch list for a while… maybe I might’ve bumped it up if I’d realised Mr Cary Grant also made an appearance!

    1. Yes same here: always liked her and her persona, her story, but never got to the actual movies. Having fun with the comments because I’m getting lots of recommendations for where to go next with her films. Thanks!

  4. 1943’s The Heat’s On includes a priceless scene of bumpkin Victor Moore courting the smooth and savvy West…..it makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it. She really was spectacular.

    1. I’ll have to check that out too, I’m kind of embarrassed I never saw many of her movies but on the bright side, it’s a new area to explore 🙂 thanks!

    1. It’s funny how people think we’ve seen them all but there are still pretty huge gaps in all our viewing. I have to get to more of Mae’s movies. Thanks!

  5. You know, I have seen parts of this movie, but I’ve definitely never seen the whole thing. In fact, I think I’ve only seen one Mae West movie from start to finish — the one with W.C. Fields. But I plan on remedying that on April 20th — I can’t wait!

    1. Yeah you and me both (have seen so few Mae movies), which is strange because I like her. Maybe it’s that we know her lines and everything so well we FEEL like we’ve seen her work. I have to get into way more Mae. Hope you like it, and you will at the very least enjoy looking at young Cary and Gilbert!!

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